The Whitehall Ledger - Serving Southern Jefferson County in the Great State of Montana

By Jack H. Smith
Whitehall Ledger 

Sullivan reflects on time in Whitehall


Just two days prior to his retirement, Whitehall Schools Superintendent John Sullivan spent his time Monday helping to paint the old and worn concession stand on campus. His last few moments in the position were indicative of his five-year tenure and a profound attitude to leave the district better then he found it.

"I have said this many times; no one person is bigger than the whole, or bigger than the job. Just because I was the superintendent didn't mean I couldn't mow the grass, shovel the snow, or sweep the gym floor. I hope I have set an example of going to work and doing whatever job is asked of you for that day; when everybody goes above and beyond what they are asked to do I think the future is bright for any school or any business," Sullivan said.

After a long tenure in both teaching and administration in Ennis, Sullivan was hired for the position in July of 2014. While he said it would be hard to pinpoint the biggest challenge, there were certainly a number of challenges right way.

His focus was to get the budgets under control and develop a system that could maintain itself and that was accountable to taxpayers. Sullivan also felt the campus itself was a point of emphasis with repairs needed to the roof, painting in certain areas, and replacement of needed operational equipment inside.

Another main challenge for Sullivan was to change the attitude or perception of the school system

"Moving it from we can't do that to we can do anything we set our mind to doing was a challenge. The challenge was to build a team of people who wanted to move in a positive direction and knock out any negative attitudes and perceptions. Developing a system of 'we' and not 'I' was the goal, and everybody jumped on board and I am very thankful for all the support of the school board, the community, and the staff," he said.

Sullivan credited former board chair Michelle LaFountaine for playing a huge role in the success of the district.

"She was the board chair when I came on and she allowed us to operate in a manner which we thought was best for kids; she believed in me and what we were doing," he said. "My wife Cindy also played a huge part; she accepted the challenge of helping me lead the school district forward and had to listen to me at home and support all of the decisions I had to make, they say a man is only as good as the woman next to him – I had two terrific women keeping me straight all the time."

Sullivan feels they now have a school system that is financially sound and has the ability to purchase items or supplies or curriculums that will enhance the learning of students,

"We have buildings that are safe, secure, and clean for our students/staff, and I think we have established the idea of a TEAM approach – Together Everyone Achieves More. I know it sounds corny, but it has always been about the 'WE' or 'US' for me; I think that is how I have left Whitehall Schools. This is the communities' school; they are all welcome and we will do everything we can to make sure your child enjoys their time here," he said.

Sullivan has always hung his hat on "school pride" and said without it you don't have much of a school.

"Students and staff need to care about their school, care about the name on the front of their uniform or jersey, and bleed purple and gold. Getting people to believe in their school and take ownership is huge; it was never my school or the teacher's school, but it is the student's school, they are our customers and I am a firm believer in practicing what you preach. Hopefully, they saw how passionate we all were about making our school better; we want it to be the best school in the state and I think we are on that path," he said. "Extra-curricular activities are often a great place or way to show your school pride; a school without these would be dull school. I tried to support and fund all these activities; the community, the students may not remember what grade they got on a certain exam or in a certain course as time goes by, but they sure will remember whether or not they beat Boulder or Manhattan or whoever in that given year. Building pride in your school is a must; it's just not a some of the time thing it's an everyday thing and hopefully I modeled that."

Taking a closer look at his tenure, Sullivan highlighted several things he was most proud of during the five years in Whitehall.

As far as the campus, Sullivan said they made many improvements and they have a really nice school for students to attend and succeed in.

He also highlighted the current staff.

"I am extremely proud of all of our staff members; all of them, from the nighttime custodians to the long-time teachers, they all care about our students and want them to succeed," he said.

Lastly, Sullivan highlighted the student body.

"I think all of them are great representative of our community and our school. We have had very few issues; our students understand that they have to work at school and that there are people here that really do care about them. They have been terrific," he said

While Sullivan admits he has always been an "A" type personality with a concrete plan his entire life, the plans for immediate future is to go on an adventure. John and Cindy have purchased a small rural property in Opportunity, Montana. Sullivan said the property has not been maintained for years so they plan to make that their Montana Oasis and also plan to head south to enjoy some winter sun.

"We have started a small business which deals in the school reporting business so that will keep me in touch with Montana schools and education, so I am not completely out of the business just yet. We are not sure exactly what the future holds, we are going to go on this adventure, explore some different areas, and see where life takes us while we are young – and yes – we are calling 50+ young," he said. "I guess you could say we are going to be modern day hippies traveling in a 5th wheel (not a van) around the country but I am not sure if hippie describes me. But, after 28 years of serious business perhaps a laid back, go with the flow attitude is just what we need."

Both John and Cindy also wanted to thank the residents of Whitehall.

"It is an awesome place with awesome people. Everybody welcomed us here and allowed us to be a part of the community for the last 5 years; we will never forget how generous everybody was. Thank you."


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